Ofsted Offerings – Reflections on an Inspection

These are some thoughts following our Section 5 Ofsted Inspection this week at St Gregory the Great Catholic School, Oxford. The original post, originally published on 26th March 2015, just contained some of my initial reflections about the process, the effectiveness of our preparations, and where we could improve these before the next one. 

31st March: updated with minor amendments and thoughts on an inspection without lesson observation gradings.

25th April: Updated to include additional details now the inspection report has been made public. Includes some additional reflections.


With a little help from our friends

 The experiences of other schools who had recently received a visit were immensely helpful in informing our preparation. I’d like to extend my particular thanks to colleagues at Cheney School, Oxford.

The training we received from Ofsted Lead Inspector Mary Myatt on the inspection process and in particular observations and feedback under the new framework was invaluable. I’d certainly recommend getting an expert external perspective from someone like Mary in preparation for inspection. 

Being Prepared

Having key documents ready collated together in files saved us a lot of time in the short space between the call and the visit and was helpful to the Ofsted team. These days we store and access most of our documentation electronically, but it was useful to have hard copies ready to hand. We keep two folders ready: school policies and key documents, including those listed on pages 13 & 14 of the Ofsted handbook. 

As I’ve also seen in previous inspections, the better the evidence you provide, the less they need to talk about it with you. That means that, for example, the lovingly-crafted evaluation I was just bursting to lead them through was just accepted, but they want to talk about something else entirely. That is, of course a good thing – if you have already communicated something well, they don’t need to enquire further. 

Even better if: We store minutes of governors meetings separately, but it would have been useful to include minutes of recent meetings, perhaps for the last term, in the key documents folder.
We forgot to give them maps of the school – that would have helped! 

Communication 

A short briefing to staff by our Principal demonstrating confidence in colleagues and reminding them of some key points worked well. We tried to keep colleagues appraised and encouraged throughout the process, especially at the start of the second day.

Even better if: Some colleagues in their first years of teaching and who hadn’t experienced an Ofsted Inspection before were clearly anxious about the process. While they did receive support from their team leaders, a separate opportunity for this group to ask questions and receive reassurance might be a good idea in the future.

Keeping colleagues informed during the process was helpful, as was senior and middle leaders modelling confidence for their teams. 

Encouraging colleagues to take up the offer of feedback proved useful, although I had forgotten how daunting this prospect can be for those who haven’t been Ofsted-ed before, so I’ll try to remember that next time round. 

Observations and feedback

As I have also noticed on previous inspections, the time allocated for feedback was not sufficient, so it’s worth remembering that everything planned to take place after these sessions is likely to be pushed back. 47 lessons were observed including 8 joint observations with SLT – more than in other inspections I have experienced. Not all colleagues who were observed received feedback, although in some cases this was because they declined the offer. 

This was my first inspection where no lesson observation gradings were given in feedback. After a debate last year, we had introduced this form of feedback in school, so it should have been familiar. I believe it has helped make observation feedback developmental. It seemed to have the same effect during the inspection: staff left feedback talking about what the inspector had told them about their teaching, rather than a judgement. I and SLT colleagues were both observed teaching and giving feedback following joint observations. I felt both were more developmental, but subsequently discovered that colleagues had varied experiences, from very full feedback to a couple of sentences. When SLT had conversations with inspectors following joint observations these sometimes included specific reference to grades, but not always. Grades were not however referred to in feedback to teachers and the overall judgement for quality of teaching was derived from a wide evidence base.

Even better if: next time round it might be better to make the availability of feedback from inspectors clear at the start, but also the likely pressure on the inspectors time. We could also raise concerns with the team if we perceived the planned time for feedback would not be enough. We also needed to keep a closer check on who had been observed so we could ensure all who wanted feedback received it.

We didn’t get a large Parentview response, despite communicating with parents via all our usual routes (pupils, email, website, Twitter). Perhaps the notice was just too short, but only about 60 responses as a result of the inspection is not many for a school of 1300 pupils. We clearly need to discuss with parents on how to encourage engagement with this questionnaire. Any suggestions on this would be really helpful. 

Process

Being able to observe the Ofsted team meetings at the end of both days gave me a real insight into the process, especially how lines of enquiry were developed and pursued and how rigour in judgements was achieved. It was also apparent how little time the team had to collect and analyse evidence, so if you want them to see something, don’t be reticent about pushing good evidence towards them! The time is so short that I have to wonder if this is the best way for an inspection team to form a comprehensive view of the school – a matter I intend to write a separate post on.

Even better if: while the Principal was given ample opportunity to draw additional evidence to the attention of the team, the pace was so breakneck that there was little time to do so. We need to give more thought to supporting key staff to respond to lines of enquiry that emerge during the inspection, as well as those we anticipated in advance.

Draft Report

The Principal has a matter of hours to respond to the draft inspection report, so it pays to be ready for it. We found Ofsted to be responsive to comments that were supported by valid and reliable evidence.

Special Events

Lastly, we received a bit of help from St Gregory the Great himself. We found out afterwards that our inspection had apparently been scheduled for earlier in the term but Ofsted had seen from our website that we were celebrating the Feast of our Patron, St Gregory the Great and moved it. Whether or not a school has a patron saint, this illustrates that Ofsted will pick up on special / unusual events if they are publicised online. We’re currently working on our calendar of saints for every day of the school year!

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Practical Science – It’s Place in the Whole School Curriculum

Ofqual and Practical Science
I recently went on a learning walk, taking in several year 11 science classes. About half were engaged in practical work. In my subsequent discussion with our Head of Science, we got talking about the decision by Ofqual to remove practicals from GCSE science assessment. His response was that his team “would keep on doing practicals, no matter what.” At the same time he expressed a concern that there were some secondary schools where less and less time was given to practicals.

In the media, it seems that there are opposing views on the Ofqual decision. Many scientific organisations have condemned the removal of practical assessment but it also seems clear that the majority of science teachers who responded to the consultation were in favour of it. What does this tell us about the place of science within the whole school curriculum?

What’s the point of doing science?
Please comment if you think I’m wrong here (or right!), but I think most science teachers love practical science but loathe ISAs. These assessments have undergone several iterations but are now generally regarded as cumbersome, overly long, formulaic and an organisational nightmare. It’s therefore unsurprising that few science teachers are mourning their demise. But the ISA is not the only way to assess practical skills, or students’ understanding of scientific investigation.

Science teachers such as Alom Shaha (writing in the Guardian here ) point to evidence that practicals may be largely ineffective in embedding knowledge. It’s certainly true that direct instruction works, but I believe carrying out practical research is essential if pupils are to understand what science is, as well as what scientists have done.

Objectivity, Replicability, and Paradigms
One way of summarising the key features of science is it’s attempt to be objective, the importance of replicability and the building of paradigms.

We cannot teach objectivity by showing students how to answer questions, but not how to ask them, by telling them about hypotheses or models, but not how to test them. Nor is it achieved by a reliance on the word of a teacher (however expert) or a text. Furthermore, it attempting to be objective, students learn that researchers themselves are variables that need to be taken into account.

Replicability is a cornerstone of science. Any research should be reported in a manner that allows others to verify its reliability be repeating it. Students should learn to both to verify what others have done, and design and report their own investigations in a way that can be replicated.

Science is not a static body of knowledge from the past, nor is it a set of hurdles that students must overcome before they can contribute themselves. It is an ongoing search for the truth that proposes explanations, then tests them by trying to knock them down, within overarching and continually developing paradigms. To learn science is to become an active part in this process.

More questions than answers
This leaves me with some questions about the place of science, and practical science, in the curriculum.

1. What are we seeking to achieve through practical science? This should drive the curriculum, not assessment.

2. What should be the balance of teaching practical skills and an understanding of scientific research?

3. How do our aims for science fit into our school values and what we aim for students to achieve at school overall?

Perhaps in the context of these questions, the Ofqual decision, whether we agree with it or not, can be seen as an opportunity. I welcome your comments.

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